When Moby Dick came out in 1851, the reviews were mixed, some considering the book to be filled with ‘high philosophy, liberal feeling, abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased’ and others lamenting that ‘Melville seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.’ The book sold just over three thousand copies in Melville’s lifetime.
As a teenager, fixated on the song Porcelain by Moby, I discovered that the musician took his name from the whale in the book on account of an ancestral relationship with Herman Melville. My angst embraced this obscurity and I procured a second hand version of the book. I was in for a tale of an unreliable, digressive narrator Ishmael and other sailors including the psychotic Captain Ahab. They sail on a whaling ship, the Pequod, to find and kill a white whale, Moby Dick who previously rendered Ahab a cripple.
This detailed account of a whaling quest lay on my bookshelf – attempted, abandoned and hidden away from sight.
I forgot all about it, till Moby Dick reappeared in my radar a couple of years ago – in ‘the greatest novel’ lists, including Paul Auster’s top ten and in conversation with friends and other readers. A friend professed such a deep love for it that I reconciled myself to reading it again.
There is much discourse about how and why Melville wrote this book – his influence from Nathaniel Hawthorne to whom this book is dedicated, his viewings of Turner’s Whaling paintings in London, his own experiences from his Whaling trips.
This year, after reading the book over several months, I realized why it had escaped me as a teenager all those years ago.
Moby Dick is a story of an adventure across the oceans of our world. A need for adventure catches one off guard. Sometimes, its arrival is natural, you hold the world and all its inhabitants in wonder and simply want to observe and participate; this desire for adventure is in its purest forms. Another day, the need arrives as your soul starts festering in a self inflicted sickness, contemplating the mortality of all beings and the futility of life on this world. Most of the times, the desire to go out and break something, to expend all your energy, to change every aspect of your current reality, arrives on a day filled with a very simple contentment. Sunbeams are filling your spaces, good food is being consumed for lunch, humans are having polite conversations in your living rooms, and you want to be far away from this joy.
Whilst my tryst with the ocean has been restricted to ferry trips across the Channel and a fear of storms and sea-sickness, the book showed me a world that I might one day be convinced to experience – a vast parallel world with its own language and rules, its own forms of nature that one must explore on a created space – a boat or a ship.
‘There is nothing–absolutely nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,’ said the water rat to the mole in the Wind in the Willows. So much about doing anything is the tools, spaces and ecosystems associated with it. Around your ship, an expanse of nature united together, below your ship, countless beings that are unfamiliar, ancient, ever changing.
Moby Dick takes you on an adventure, exploring the chaos, calm, beauty, mysteries of the ocean.
Moby Dick is also about the natural history of whales and the history of killing them, as well as a book set in the 19th century thus giving us a view of the camaraderie or relationships between men (there are hardly any women in the book). Entire chapters dedicated to the biology of the whale may not make for a page turner, but do expand one’s mind of the existence of other creatures besides us. The ventures of whaling remind one of human beings’ exploitation of these creatures for our own purposes.
There is a depth and breadth of philosophy threading the book. I found myself stopping sometimes, in the middle of the page, compelled by some passage prefixed by whale blubber and suffixed by a long winded description of the etiquette to be maintained when greeting another ship out on the sea. I would read the passage once, twice, read it out loud to myself in a small whisper, then proceed to spend rest of my commute staring outside the train window, overcome with emotion by its strangeness, its lyricality.
‘But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of gulf-weed in their new-born sight.’
I found such a passage and I stopped reading the book for a few days. The words fill one up, carrying you on an adventure of the spirit; maybe there was an emptiness that needed filling, or maybe it accentuated the deepest emotions that lay dormant in your soul.
In that ‘intermission’, it didn’t matter when the book was written or what it was about. I listened to the passages being read out by others. I imagined Melville adding those sentences in a rewrite. I imagined that moment when he decided – perhaps with his friend Hawthorne – that he wanted his creative piece of work to be more than just a whaling adventure. Though he died, not knowing the mark of his work on the world, I imagined that he was content with the energy he had used in his creativity and expression. There are clear reasons he chose the Whale as a subject, but in writing Moby Dick, he seems to have become aware of the joy of creating something, of the importance of having something that is yours and that you look forward to in your life. Melville’s character, Ishmael says so.
‘One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one’… ‘For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.’
I finished the book and didn’t care too much about how it ended (abruptly). It had been a companion for many months. I had read about it, about its creator, about the inspirations behind it. I had looked at pictures of whales and gone to the museum to look at the skeleton of a whale. I had wondered how the book would read in today’s language. I had wondered many things and now I was perturbed. I knew not what I was to do without the Whale. I started reading other books – Macbeth, a book about World War 2, some children’s literature. Through those readings, I found myself returning to Moby Dick, reading a passage or two.
I had found a book that would endure, as it no doubt had in different ways for many people over the years. Isn’t that the most treasured of discoveries in the 21st century or any human lifetime? Finding something that moves your spirit, that has the power to expand and contract your spirit.
I knew I could return to Moby Dick, in the way I return to listening to a section of a piece of classical music, say Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto 2. You hear it, long after the composer is gone, interpreted by a child prodigy musician who you wonder will ever create their own piano concerto, and you know not why the song was written, possibly as the composer recovered from depression but here you are, listening to the notes in your own reality, interpreting the music in your own way, thinking about its role in your life. Sometimes, you just have to stop what you are doing. You have found the minute of the piece of music that you love, and you can listen to it again and again and close your eyes and cement this memory, this movement of your spirit, so you can remember it on a day that perhaps you don’t feel as much. Life is short. Life is long. There is much to be lost and gained from sailing for a whale.
Photo/artwork credit – Vinayak Nagesh